We are firmly in the midst of the holiday season. Decorations are up for Thanksgiving and Christmas already (!). Most retail commercials are featuring Santa and Christmas music. Everywhere you look, everything you do is a reminder. I thought I would jump on board with an article to help you through the holiday season full of practical suggestions and guidance…
What makes the holiday season so challenging for a griever?
1. Shared history: chances are we spent many many holidays with our person who died. So many memories, traditions, and emotions are directly connected to that person. Memories are stronger if there is an emotional connection to the event and there is nothing more emotional than a holiday season or gathering filled with the people we love the most. When someone is missing, the emotions of this season cannot match the positive emotions of any other season. This makes the grief all the more evident. Positive emotional memory of the past paired with the current intense emotion of the grief equal a very challenging emotional roller coaster of a holiday season.
2. Childhood memories: If you come from a family that went all out for the holidays, chances are you’ll have positive, happy, joyful memories of those days and have wanted to recreate those for your own family. If, on the other hand, you do not have positive childhood memories, chance are you have wanted to create those for your family. Either way, the nostalgia we feel around the holidays can be profound under the best of circumstances. So many of us get overwhelmed as adults by all the things we have to do during the holiday season and we miss those carefree times as a child when all we had to do was anticipate the coming of the holiday. Those memories in and of themselves can be triggers for grief. We miss times gone by, the people who used to be at those gatherings and are no longer, the simpler times, the excitement and anticipation. We wish our children and grandchildren could experience the holidays the way we did, but everything is different now. With our person gone for this season, all of this can be overwhelming. Too many changes over too many years. We just want things to be what they were.
3. Constant reminders: Stores are putting up their Christmas decorations and it’s not even Thanksgiving yet! Displays of Christmas decorations have been in stores since September. Retailers are running their Christmas commercials. Homes have begun to put up their lights and door wreaths. We can’t escape it. Since so many strong memories are directly connected to our person who died, there are countless triggers just waiting amid all of these reminders. It could be music, or a certain food, or a smell, or a location, or a movie or just about anything else that was meaningful for you. It’s virtually impossible to avoid being ambushed by a trigger this time of year. Expect them. Prepare for them. Carry tissues at all times.
4. Happy happy joy joy commercials: I’ve mentioned commercials already, but want to say a special word about them. Some of them are intentionally emotionally charged. Advertising executives know that a strong emotional connection will make you want to buy their product. Some holiday commercials are downright gut-wrenching in their emotionality. Folgers and Hallmark come to mind. Even if you’re not grieving, some of those commercials can move a person to tears! Again, expect the triggers for a good cry. You’re more emotionally fragile these days and that’s okay. Have a good cry.
Coping through the Holidays
There is a whole lot of advice out there about coping with the holiday season and I am only one more voice added to the chorus. I’ve broken it down into three categories to make it easy to navigate through my suggestions. This outline for coping with the holidays can be translated to other holidays and events, such as anniversaries, birthdays, etc.
1. Self-Care: Duh. I know. Everyone says to take good care of yourself. When you are grieving and feeling overwhelmed it is improbable that you will adhere to a strict self-care schedule.
A. Physically – using whatever energy you do have, try to get some good rest, decent nutrition (an apple every now and then to supplement the cereal and toast over the sink), exercise and definitely some fresh air every day.
B. Emotionally – Expect that this will be an emotional roller coaster and be prepared with tissues. Identify and lean on your support system. Let them know that this season will be challenging, that they can expect tears, that you may not make up your mind about attending anything until the last minute and that you hope they will understand. (And if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours!) Be direct about what you need – a listening ear, help wrapping presents, some space to be alone…
C. Cognitively – Read about grief during the holidays to help you know what is natural and when to ask for some assistance. Take breaks from the grief by allowing your mind to be engaged in something that takes your mind off of who and what you are missing. Maybe learn a new craft, attend a lecture, go out to a movie, etc.
D. Spiritually – Engage daily in whatever brings you peace. Music, meditation, prayer, nature, creativity, worship. Anything that allows you time to settle your mind and be in this moment right now.
Have a Plan
As a counselor, I’m forever suggesting my clients have a plan for THE day. Know what you are going to be doing every hour of the day. What you will be eating. Who you will be seeing and when – if anyone. Within this category are three choices: All, Nothing or Different.
1. All: Literally all things will be the same. You will do everything exactly as you’ve always done. Using Christmas as an example, you will put up all of the usual decorations. Have dinner in the same place at the same time with the same people and the same menu and the same dishes. Know that this will be an emotional roller coaster. The triggers will be numerous and you may need to take breaks from any activity. Inform your support system so they know what to expect.
2. Nothing: You choose to completely disengage with the holiday/season. You choose to spend the day alone at home. Inform your support system and expect resistance. They will not want you to choose this option. If you do, and you believe it is right for you, stick to your decision. One client repeated this phrase to her family until they accepted her decision: “I am choosing to spend the day in quiet contemplation.” Short, to the point, firm. They eventually did honor her request. Let them know that it is for this year only. Next year you may or may not make a different choice. Still have an agenda for the day. And leave your options open. One client was home alone all day for Thanksgiving last year, decided maybe she was up for some company, and called her family to ask if she could come over for pie.
3. Different: Within this category there are two choices – Stay or Go
A. Stay – Tweak the day. Change the time, location, or menu. Instead of dinner at 2, maybe you have an evening meal by candlelight. Skip or add traditions. It may be too overwhelming to send out cards this year, so don’t. Maybe you have everyone go around the table or sit around the tree after dinner and share memories and stories. Alter the decorations. Maybe instead of putting up the big Christmas tree, you opt to only put up the small table-top one. Decide what is really really really important to you and dismiss the rest. Inform your support system that due to how emotionally challenging this holiday/season is for you that you’ve decided to do things a little differently. Most folks will understand.
2. Go – Run away. That’s right. You heard me. Run away. Take a trip. Leave town. Go visit some far-flung relatives or friends. Take a cruise. Fly to a remote island. Whatever appeals to you. Inform your support system and expect resistance. Again, stick to your decision if this is what you choose.
** There is no right or wrong option to choose. As each person is unique and each person’s grief is unique, so will your response to an important day. Whichever option you choose – All, Nothing, or Different – it does not have to be a permanent decision. It is just for this time. Next time you may choose a different option. Just do what makes the most sense to you.
Memorialize Your Person
This is so very important for any special day. The worst thing would be to completely ignore that this person is no longer present. Do something – anything – to honor/memorialize/remember your person. And do this whether you are with others or alone. Some examples: light a candle, display a photo, cook their favorite food/dessert, share memories, release balloons, craft something out of their belongings, give a keepsake, make a donation….The ideas are endless.
And there you have it. My game plan for this holiday season and, really, any significant date on the calendar. It will be emotional. The triggers will be plentiful and endless. Sometimes it will feel like you are completely disconnected. With all of that, it can still be a time to both take care of yourself and honor your loved one. Who knows? Maybe there will be a merry moment or two mixed up in the chaos.
Whatever you choose, may you have some semblance of peace and comfort on those challenging days.
As always, feel free to contact me with questions or concerns, or to schedule an appointment.
Copyright 2014 Lisa B. Wolfe, Translating Grief, LLC